Directed by: Rajnesh Domalpalli | 111 minutes | drama, music, family | Actors: Mamatha Bhukya, Urmila Dammannagari, Ramachandriah Marikanti, Krishnamma Gundimalla, Karan Singh, Bhavani Renukunta, Krishna Garlapati, Prabhu Garlapati, Ram Babu Tarra, Veeramma Sadula
Surprisingly, the endearing yet poignant story about the young Vanaja who suffers from social injustice and personal trauma is a graduation film by director Rajnesh Domalpalli. Surprising because this is not just any finger exercise. “Vanaja” is not a simple genre film to showcase cinematic techniques. No, it is an ambitious film that actually has something to tell. Although not every plot point or story element develops equally fluently, logically, or profoundly, with ‘Vanaja’ Domalpalli succeeds admirably in taking a look at the caste system through the personal problems of the necessarily (too) rapidly maturing Vanaja.
For a moment, the film seems to follow the beaten path of regular sports or dance films, where a poor, seemingly hopeless protagonist is given the opportunity to make his or her dream come true and grows into a sensation. No, then “Vanaja” is a bit different. This poor girl cleverly knows – by using it as an Indian board game – to steal some music and dance lessons from her boss; at first sight a strict lady, who is nevertheless charmed by the wisecracking Vanaja and is willing to take her under her wing. She turns out to be a true dance talent and the viewer is already preparing for a wonderful happy ending.
But then the film takes on grimmer forms. A family member comes into play who seems attractive but cannot keep his hands at home and even rapes and impregnates Vanaja. Then the question is what fourteen-year-old Vanaja is going to do with the child. Vanaja’s continuously drunk father proposes to keep it and then sell it. Vanaja herself eventually wants to stay with her child, but is this really that easy? And to what extent will this child be accepted by the father, who does not want to be associated with the lower caste from which Vanaja comes? The lower hives, it turns out, have a darker complexion, so it is difficult to hide the child’s parentage. In an embarrassing scene, even some light cream is smeared on the baby, hoping he won’t look so dark.
“Vanaja” is a compelling story with important, engaged themes and solid acting. The knowledge that these are exclusively non-professional actors underlines that last point even more. Main actress Mamatha Bhukya stands out for both her graceful, effortless dance steps (which she had to learn especially for the film) and her largely convincing and engaging acting. Interestingly, it is the subtler emotions that she impresses with.
The dance scenes are a welcome change within the somewhat heavy story, but are not separate from the whole. In fact, it seems to be a manifestation of Vanaja’s wishes and restrained emotions. In her dance rituals she can express herself and be free in a way that is not (anymore) possible in her daily life. As she portrays different Hindu gods and characters in different emotional states, the true Vanaja comes to life; which allows her to survive in the practical prison of her reality.